Minke Knol the owner of Turnip Education, an educational consultancy focused on improving the quality of teaching, learning and leadership, talks to John Harris, Principal at Global English School.
Starting as a principal at a low-performing school means you have to improve the teaching and learning most of the time in a relatively short period. You need to uplift your school at all levels. Improving a low-performing school means hard working, at least for one year. There is only one goal: improve student achievement and wellbeing in your school together with the teachers, staff, leadership and parents. You can’t improve a school just by yourself.
Being a low-performing school can sometimes have as a consequence, you have to close your doors. You will lose students most definitely; which parent wants his kid at a low-performing school? And it will take time to repair your reputation in your community and attain new students, at least two years in my experience. Luckily there are school leaders who can transform low-performing schools into high-performing and who love doing this job. I interviewed John Harris. He is principal at Global English School and improved this school from weak to acceptable in eight months. The expectation is to receive a good judgment when the school inspection visits Global again this year – time to learn more about his experiences.
Welcome, John, tell me who is John, and how did you end up in education?
I have worked in schools for 20 years now, in the UK, Australia and the UAE. I started as a drama-teacher; I was inspired by my drama teacher, back in secondary school. She was my role model in terms of passion, character and encouragement. She really inspired me to work in schools and gave me a passion for the arts. After a few years, I started with middle management roles, and for the past 11 years, I have been a senior leader in schools in the UK and the UAE. I have worked in four leadership teams, and we have had tremendous success. In London, I was part of a leadership team whichmoved a school from weak to outstanding in record time, about two years.
I have been at Global for about four years now, and I am really proud of our progress. We are a low fee paying school but have made consistent progress each year. When I started here, we made a strategic decision not to raise the school fees in line with inspection success. We want to be a good school for our target community.
That is an example for other schools here in the UAE…
I think there is a misconception that rapid and sustained school improvement requires heavy investment. It might make it easier in some ways, but I don’t think that it is a necessity. The core of school improvement is raising the quality of teaching and learning, and we focused on utilising the SLT’s experience to raise standards with this.
What are your key-ingredients for success? What is your strategy when you start at a weak school? How do you improve such a school?
I have been very lucky with a number of factors. For example, the children at our school are wonderful, and the teachers are very hardworking and willing. The Board is very supportive and is committed to the school’s success. I also was fortunate with the outstanding SLT who worked incredibly hard, and I have received support from excellent consultants.
Prior to my official start at Global, I carried out learning walks, I met with the leadership team, and with teachers, I did a rigorous analysis of their data and all inspection documents. After that, I built a very clear picture of the schools’ strengths and weaknesses. The school had been issued with an admissions ban, and I was looking for opportunities to make rapid improvement. We had to improve in one year to acceptable; the pressure was very high. We couldn’t afford to be weak for two years.
Based on my research, I extended the school development plan, because it needed to include additional KPI’s to ensure we secured the acceptable judgement. There was a relentless focus on teaching and learning, progress, leadership and self-evaluation. I wanted to demystify what teachers, middle leaders, and senior leaders needed to do to meet the acceptable criteria. To facilitate this, we had our targets and goals, but I also designed some key systems to secure rapid success. For example, I introduced a rigorous attainment and progress monitoring system for individuals and groups.
Being a low-performing school often means trust at all levels disappeared. I think trust and transparency are crucial to improve the school.
Yes, I think trust is an integral part of any school. Given the challenges, it was essential that all the stakeholders believed what I was saying, that I was competent in leading the school to where it needed to be, and believed I had a tremendous commitment to the school’s improvement.
I was very clear to all of our stakeholders, we wanted to build a quality school for our target community, and I think that this moral purpose was the glue that helped to keep everything together as time went on. I was also very honest about the situation we were in. At the same time, though, I was tremendously positive and optimistic about what we were going to achieve.
Where do you start when you are going to improve a school?
Every school improvement plan starts with teaching and learning. As a teacher, I would have hated it if someone told me you have to teach like this. But given the situation we were in I had to be directive. I identified key lesson features that were based on acceptable teaching criteria. I launched this at the start of the year through workshops; I demystified what we were looking for in lessons. The next step was to carry out a needs analysis, asking the teachers to rate their confidence in these different areas. I then designed and delivered over 100 hours of professional development in that first year with the leadership team. There was also a systematic and rigorous quality assurance programme, including learning walks, formal observations, work scrutiny, surveys and interviews to provide on-going support and challenge for teachers. We also introduced a teacher development programme. Teachers who required additional support were coached on this program to support them to make progress.
What is the biggest difference in being a ‘weak’, ‘acceptable’, ‘good’ or outstanding school? From my experience students at low-performing schools are not motivated for learning anymore; most of them simply sit in the classroom without learning anything. For teachers the same, they are often disappointed, don’t know what the school’s direction is, and don’t receive support from management. I think it is your responsibility as a principal to bring the soul of the school back, after that you can continue and start building.
The two crucial differences from the first day I started here until today are the improvement of teaching and learning and raising student achievement. In September 2017, only 2 % of the lessons were good or above. By November 2020, 87 % of the lessons were good or above. Within the first two years of working at the school, 58% more students were working at the curriculum’s expected levels. These statistics show evidence of improved life chances for children and young people.
Over the past three years, we have had time to build our teachers’ teaching skills, make our curriculum more challenging and implement effective school wide systems. We routinely reflect on where we are and how we can improve. I have worked in two outstanding leadership teams prior to Global and appreciate that we have a long way to go to meet the highest standards though.
And what is it you want to see in the classroom? What is your vision of teaching and learning?
I want students to make progress; I want to see that learning is visible in the lesson. I want to see students challenged, excited, and to take ownership of their learning. People often reflect on what they didn’t learn at school. Well, schools can’t teach you everything. We want to teach students the skills to continue to learn throughout their lives.
The teachers at Global are very enthusiastic, and they are improving a lot! I am very transparent with staff and focused on raising standards. At the end of the day, we have a very serious job to do: How are we improving the life chances of the children and young people in our care.
Some lesson items were not negotiable, you just told me, that doesn’t sound very democratic. In my experience leadership at a weak school is different than at a ‘normal’ school. Also, because you don’t have enough time to discuss everything. Teachers always told me that they needed someone who is able to make decisions; they appreciated this more autocratical leadership. What kind of leadership style is it you used to improve a school and does it change when your school has improved to the next level?
My leadership style is situational. Good leaders respond to the context in front of them and vary their approach to an organisation’s needs. When I started at this school, the teachers were very willing, but they needed explicit guidance. In the first year, I adopted an autocratic leadership style. There wasn’t time to distribute the leadership as I would have liked to. But over time, my approach has become more democratic; I have distributed the leadership across the school. I could probably do this more; it takes time.
Do you have tips for other schools about improvement?
Clarity in the first instance, to make sure you are clear about your intentions. Be clear about what different people at different levels within your organisation are expected to do. Offer training where it is needed. Ensure people are clear about your vision, always return to this and celebrate successes.
Be relentless and persistent in following up on the key drivers for success. Enthusiasm for change is notably higher in August than in November when fatigue sets in. An effective leader perseveres in implementing change through those tough times.
I think it is important to work on things incrementally. We have carefully built on successes each year in a manageable way. One of the simplest mistakes about school improvement is to aim to replicate success from other schools. It is very important to work with the strengths and opportunities within your context and build upon these.
You achieved a lot at Global. I think, what you in essence did, is building a strong learning community, you engaged everyone, listened to what was going on, supported the one who needed it, made decisions and distributed your leadership when teaching and learning got better. I am curious about your next step. What are you doing in five years do you think?
I would like to have a PhD. I am passionate about learning. I love learning about history. I want to continue to invest in my own education.
That’s wonderful. I believe it would be interesting for many educators to see how you combine your practical experience with the theoretical foundation. Thank you for this interview!